A pint at Salty Nut Brewery in Huntsville, Ala.

Proof that the craft beer scene is growing in Huntsville is clearly visible through the history of Salty Nut Brewery.  Brent Cole and Daniel Yant along with a team of partners opened the brewery in 2013 off Evangel Circle near the UA Huntsville campus.  In January 2016, the brewery relocated to its current location in Downtown Huntsville off Clinton Avenue in the spaced previously occupied by Yellowhammer Brewing.

Although Salty Nut has changed the space to meet its needs, the general structure has not changed.  One building serves as the taproom while another building houses the brewing and fermentation equipment.

Main entrance to the taproom alongside the production building.

Visitors immediately walk into the seating area before finding the bar, which is in the back of the taproom.

An overview of the seating area at the brewery.

After navigating the crowd watching TV when we visited, my wife Katie and I made our way to the bar.

We opted to order a flight of all the beers (and ciders) on draft, so while waiting for the bartender to fill the flight I took a picture of the merchandise area across from the bar.

Merchandise area across from the bar.

Due to the brewery’s name the merchandise features a lot of squirrel and acorn themed items.  However, the story behind the brewery’s name is just as interesting as the merchandise.  Cole and Yant played the video game “Rock Band” and had named their fictional band Salty Nut, so it seemed like the natural choice when the duo started a brewery together.

Before long we had our flight, so we headed to a table to enjoy it.

A flight of beers in a specially-made acorn flight tray.

The flight tray we used is very unique, and not an item most visitors get to use when they visit the brewery.  With eight slots, it typically holds a sample of each beer on draft.  If you don’t order ALL the beers, you get a typical flight tray.  So because we ordered everything on the menu, we got the unique acorn-shaped flight tray.

When we ordered all eight beers on draft we got a wide variety of styles and flavors.  Our flight consisted of: Imperial Moustache Red (an Irish red ale), Hop Naughty (an American IPA), Hawt Blonde (a blonde ale), Pom Diggity Cider (a pomegranate flavored cider), Koopa-Cabra Kölsch (a German Kölsch), Maibock (a German maibock), Straight Up Cider (a classic cider), and Long Live the Chief (a double IPA).  Of the eight brews we had, I enjoyed Pom Diggity Cider the best.  It was sweet, but not overly sweet and had an interesting flavor profile.  I’m not big on pomegranate, but it added something really unique and enjoyable to the cider.  On the strictly beer side, I especially enjoyed Maibock.  It’s a malt-forward ale that is lower on the IBUs.  By comparison, my wife Katie liked the Imperial Moustache Red the best, which is great evidence that we all have different tastes when it comes to beers.  Fans of the classic hop-forward IPAs should try Hop Naughty, which is the first beer Cole developed as a homebrewer.

In addition to the interior space, Salty Nut also has an extensive beer garden.  It’s great for springtime and summertime visits, but even during cooler weather it’s still quite enjoyable with a few strategically placed fire pits.

When you venture outside you can also investigate the production side of the brewery, which is housed in a separate building from the taproom.  I didn’t get to go on a tour, so I didn’t get to explore the production side in great detail, but there is a window open that allows visitors to see the fermentation tanks.

A view of the brewery’s fermentation tanks.

Back inside the taproom art fans will find a variety of unique items adorning the walls.  Salty Nut plays up the squirrel and nut motif.  Across from the bar is a wall with a variety of items, but by far the coolest decoration was a small wooden plaque hanging above the men’s restroom that says: “Welcome to the nut house.”

That may be the most appropriate description of the brewery Cole, Yant, and their partners have developed.  Salty Nut Brewery’s taproom sits under a billboard in a former industrial area of Huntsville.  They brewed a beer called Unimpeachable Pale Ale to mock the governor of Alabama and his affair with a top aide.  They have someone dressed up in a squirrel costume handing out sacks of nuts at beer festivals.  So when you visit the taproom, you’ve definitely arrived at the nut house.  You’ll find the jolliest bunch of people drinking beer at this nut house.

A pint at Green Bus Brewing in Huntsville, Ala.

In downtown Huntsville just off the courthouse square in a former law office is a homebrewer’s dream come true.  It’s not a homebrew store, but Green Bus Brewing.  It is a homebrewer’s dream come true because that’s what happened for Green Bus’s owner Jason Sledd.  In advance of my visit to Huntsville’s first nanobrewery, I happened to hear Jason’s interview with Beer Guys Radio, which shed a lot of light onto his journey from homebrewer to brewery owner (listen to it here).

Back to the Rocket City and the Madison County Courthouse Square, where you find Green Bus Brewing on an idyllic tree-lined street.

Main entrance to the brewery.

When visitors enter the brewery they immediately see a few tables and the bar to the left side with a set of stairs on the right.

An overview of the bar.

Just past the bar are a few more tables.

The side of the bar.

Perhaps the coolest part of the table around the bar is the grain.

A closeup of a table with grains underneath.

There are a variety of grains underneath the glass tabletops, which is cool to see as a craft beer fan.  However, the really unique and fun part is the informational sheets with each type of grain.  For example, in the front right corner of the previous photo you can see black patent malt with details about how the grain is utilized in the brewing process and the different flavors it brings to beer.  So the tables are educational in addition to being decorative.

Speaking of grain, the storage area is just beyond the seating area.  So visitors get a very unique taproom experience when visiting Green Bus Brewing because unlike larger breweries, there is not enough space to separate storage areas for necessities like grain.

Grain storage in the back of the brewery.

The brewery’s size is intentional according to Sledd, who says he aspires to be Downtown Huntsville’s neighborhood brewery and does not have plans to distribute or package his beer.  The nanobrewery concept is new to Alabama, as there have not been others to open just yet.

The story behind the name of the brewery is particularly fun because if you visit the brewery you see artwork that evokes the green bus.  According to Jason’s interview on Beer Guys Radio, he owned an old green Volkswagen bus, and after being ribbed by brewers at another local brewery about what he was going to call his brewery he jokingly replied, “Green Bus Brewing.”  Soon after the teasing about when he was going to open his own brewery began, so when Sledd set his sights on opening a brewery the name was already set.  In homage to the old, green VW bus, which Sledd still owns and occasionally appears at beer festivals around town, the brewery features a variety of pieces depicting a Volkswagen bus.

Now onto the beer, which usually covers a spectrum of styles.  There are usually at least a dozen beers on draft.  So when I visited I saw selections ranging from a milk stout to a double IPA to a blonde ale to an English bitter.  If you want to know ahead of time what is on draft, you can check out the brewery’s beer menu on Untappd.  Whether you’re an experienced craft beer drinker or a newbie, you’ll find a beer that’s just right for your taste buds.

From my visits to the brewery, I’ve had Camper Von Blonde, Sour Pale, Downtown Julie Brown, Schwarzbier, Dominant Red, ESB, and Tiramisu Milk Stout.  All are solid representations of their style, but by far my favorite one is the Tiramisu Milk Stout.  At the name evokes, it is a chocolate and coffee milk stout.  So it’s smooth like a milk stout and checks in at 5% ABV, but it carries the chocolate and coffee flavors you typically find in heavier, boozier stouts.  It was intended to be a seasonal brew, but quickly became the most popular beer so it is now brewed year-round.

Like most breweries, Green Bus does not have a kitchen, but occasionally sells snack items like a build-your-own nacho bar or you can bring in food from any of the surrounding area’s great restaurants.  The taproom has a genuine neighborhood feel, as regulars were quickly recognized and the bartender greeted many customers by name.  So if you’re in Huntsville you should head downtown for a pint or taster of a beer you won’t find anywhere else in the city and visit Green Bus Brewing.

A pint at Below the Radar Brewhouse in Huntsville, Ala.

There are a lot of great places to find craft beer in Downtown Huntsville, but one of the first places to open its door was Below the Radar Brewhouse.  Unlike many other breweries in town, Below the Radar (BTR) opened as a brewpub.  So the space is quite different from a standard brewery, and the view of BTR from the street is quite different.

The main entrance to the brewhouse.

When you walk in the door you are greeted at the hostess’s counter, but then immediately see the bar and a sizable seating area with high-top tables.

An overview of the bar.

Having been to Below the Radar a few times before, Katie and I usually sit at the bar.  However, on our most recent visit we met up with one of her graduate school classmates and were showing her around the craft beer scene in Huntsville.  So instead of immediately grabbing a pair of seats at the bar, we were escorted to a back room and sat at a table.  Whether you sit at the bar or in the front seating area or end up at a table farther back in the brewpub, you will see the brewing equipment through glass.

A view from the main dining room to the brewing area.

It was interesting being seated at a table for the first time because I hadn’t realized that BTR had such a large space.  Walking through to a dining room in the back also showed me just how many people were dining at the brewpub on an early Saturday afternoon.  As we took our seats and perused the beer menu, I took a moment to capture the scene of our dining room.

An overview of the back room at the brewhouse.

As the shadows clearly show there is a LOT of natural light in that back room, which was quite enjoyable for our visit.

As a brewpub, BTR brews and serves its own beer, but also serves beers from a variety of other breweries.  Some of the breweries are from Huntsville, but other breweries may be from Birmingham, elsewhere in the South, and sometimes just big national or international brands.  So regardless of your beer preferences, visitors should find something they enjoy.

Although I could have ordered any beer on the menu, I opted to stay local and order something from Below the Radar on this visit.  As it was early in the day, I opted for Heavy Lift, which is BTR’s hefeweizen.  It is served in a traditional wheat beer glass, and is brewed close to style with hints of bananas and cloves.  It is only 5.6% ABV, which makes it a great beer for all seasons.  Although I only had one beer on this day, I’ve visited BTR a handle of other times and have found that there is always a variety of their own beers on draft.  For example, I’ve previously drank the Oak-Aged Ares Amber (a barrel-aged amber), Edison Light (a pilsner), Gravel Road (a cream ale), and Firefox Pale Ale (a traditional American pale ale) on previous visits.

A big advantage of being a brewpub instead of a brewery is that Below the Radar also serves other alcoholic drinks, so visitors can order from a full bar and on the weekends take advantage of mimosas and bloody Mary specials.  Naturally, a brewpub also offers food.  I did not eat there on this visit, but have eaten there previously and enjoyed the very extensive and varied menu.

So whether you’re visiting from out of town or a local, Below the Radar offers a lot of options.  You have a wide variety of seating options whether you want to sit at the bar, a table, or a high-top.  There are alcoholic drinks for your friends who don’t drink craft beer.  There is food for everybody’s taste buds.  Perhaps most importantly there is on-site brewed beer for the craft beer lovers.

Recapping the 2018 Von Brewski Festival

Over the past two years I have been to Huntsville five times with my wife to enjoy the city’s craft beer scene.  During my trips to Huntsville, we’ve visited every brewery and a variety of craft beer stores and restaurants.  However, last weekend Katie and I visited the Rocket City to attend the Second Annual Von Brewski Beer Festival at the Von Braun Center, which is the first time we’ve attended this event.  In advance of my trip, I previewed the breweries on tap at the beer festival and the setup of the event (read it here).  So instead of rehashing the breweries at the event, I’m going to focus on my experience at the festival and will touch on some of the beers I sampled.

Katie and I arrived at the Embassy Suites by Hilton Huntsville Hotel & Spa, which in partnership with the Huntsville/Madison County Convention & Visitors Bureau and the Von Braun Center, hosted us for the weekend.  The room was the standard room you expect to find at an Embassy Suites by Hilton hotel with a bedroom and separate living space that has a pull-out sofa.  You can see some of the pictures of the room and awesome welcome package we received on my Twitter and Instagram accounts (and below).

Arriving on the night before the beer festival allowed us to visit some of our usual spots in town.  We had dinner at Straight to Ale Brewing at Campus 805, and stopped at Liquor Express and Craft Beer Store for the kickoff event to Huntsville Beer Week.  Fast forwarding to the next afternoon following a delicious lunch at Bandito Burrito, we walked across from the Embassy Suites to the Von Braun Center using the second-floor skywalk.

Von Brewski Beer Festival is a bit different from other beer festivals I have attended because the doors open thirty minutes before volunteers are allowed to start pouring beer.  In most cases the doors open at people are immediately allowed to start drinking beer.  It was really different experience for Katie and I, but one that we both enjoyed because we didn’t have to wait in a long line or lose time figuring out where each brewery was located.  Instead, we casually strolled into the South Hall of the Von Braun Center around 1:45 p.m. and got to survey where each brewery was setup and decide how we wanted to proceed.

Another difference was that instead of charging for pretzel necklaces like many festivals do, at Von Brewski you get to build your own to wear or you can scoop some into a bowl and take that with you.

The beer festival is inside the convention center, so there is a concession stand serving food at the event.  Additionally, there are vendors selling goods and a full bar for attendees who don’t drink craft beer.  Von Brewski also provides live music.  45 Surprise played at this year’s event with a mix of country music and a little bit of bluegrass.

One of the best parts about the setup at Von Brewski is that each brewery has a banner hanging above its location.  So if you’re searching for a specific brewer you can easily find it.  Additionally, the breweries are relatively organized by geography.  You know I loved that!  The Huntsville are breweries were along the back wall, so you visitors could easily sample every beer from the city’s nine breweries.  The Birmingham breweries were a farther down the back wall with a pair on the left side of the hall.  The two international breweries at the festival, Chilero and Einstök, were right next to each other.  There was also a dedicated and label area for ciders and meads.

The other beer festivals I have attended produce a beer list, but it’s usually a PDF you have to print out on your own or even worse is in HTML on a website.  Von Brewski does the nicest thing I’ve seen at a beer festival, which is to provide a printed pamphlet that allows attendees to rate the beers they drank at the event.

The beer guide allows festival goers to mark how much they loved each beer.

So speaking of beers, what did I think of the brews I sampled?  If you’re an Untappd user, you saw my timeline blow up last Saturday afternoon.  You may have also seen my Twitter timeline explode, too.  I won’t recap every beer I sampled because I use Untappd to do that, instead I’m going to highlight my five favorite beers from the festival.

  • Rocket Republic Cosmic Cookie Oatmeal Brown Ale
  • Straight to Ale Bourbon Barrel-Aged Double Oatmeal Stout
  • TrimTab Language of Thunder
  • TrimTab Cherry Apricot Berliner Weisse
  • Yellowhammer Los Robles Coffee Imperial Stout

I rated all five beers a 4.25 out of 5 on Untappd, so I can objectively say that they are all equally great beers.  However, they are also five very different beers.  Among the quintet there are three stouts, a Berliner Weisse, and a brown ale.

Rocket Republic Brewing Co.’s Cosmic Cookie is middle of the road on alcohol, checking in at 5.8% ABV.  It has an outstanding spice blend and tastes like a slightly alcoholic oatmeal cookie.  It’s a very non-traditional brown ale, but a great illustration that craft breweries can make beer that doesn’t have the typical bitter taste.  I wouldn’t start a non-craft beer drinker off with this brew, but for people who espouse that they don’t like beer it might be a great starter brew.

Straight to Ale’s Bourbon Barrel-Aged Double Oatmeal Stout is a boozier beer, as you’d imagine it would be from the barrel-aging process, and checks in at 10.0% ABV.  As Matt Cooper from STA explained to me, it is designed to be a beer that is in between their Velvet Evil and Stout at the Devil.  I enjoy both those beers, but the biggest difference is that this brew sneaks up on you with the booziness.  I didn’t at first notice the bourbon, but it hit my taste buds about middle of the way through my sample.

TrimTab Brewing Co.’s Language of Thunder and Cherry Apricot Berliner Weisse are two very different beers, which is a great illustration of the skills of the brewers.  Language of Thunder is a barrel-aged Russian Imperial Stout that checks in at 9.7% ABV.  It is a little boozy, but very smooth.  In contrast, Cherry Apricot Berliner Weisse checks in at 5.0% ABV.  It’s less sour than your typical Berliner Weisse that can be mouth-puckering for some people.  According to Luke, the head brewer at TrimTab, they worked to cut down on the acid levels to reduce the tartness of the beer.

Yellowhammer Brewing’s Los Robles Coffee Imperial Stout checks in at 10.0% ABV, and was one of the most unique beers at the festival.  It is an imperial stout steeped on coffee from Los Robles Coffee Project, which is a non-profit organization that partners with coffee growers in Los Robles, Nicaragua, to export coffee to the United States and use the profits to invest a community health program called Nicaragua Community Health Connection (NCHC).  It tasted like most coffee imperial stouts except that there was a little added heat and spice from some peppers.  I couldn’t find out what specific peppers were utilized in the brew, but the spiciness made it different enough from other coffee imperial stouts.

Besides my favorite beers, people attending the festival got to vote for their favorite brewery.  So with about fifteen minutes remaining in the festival, the four finalists were called to the stage.  The finalists were Alltech Lexington Brewing & Distilling Co., Blake’s Hard Cider Co., Green Bus Brewing, and Rocket Republic Brewing Co.  It was really cool seeing the variety of breweries people liked because the finalists included two from the Huntsville area, a cidery, and an out-of-state brewery known for bourbon-barrel-aged beers.  The winner of the People’s Choice Award was …

… Rocket Republic Brewing Company, which is located in the Huntsville suburb of Madison.

Following the announcement of the People’s Choice winner, I visited the Rocket Republic booth and ordered another beer from them because I felt like it was an appropriate way to cap my time at the festival.  To conclude the Von Brewski Beer Festival I ordered Dark Matter.

Reflecting on the festival it was a great time, but then again I find most beer festivals enjoyable.  There are a lot of things that made the 2018 Von Brewski Beer Festival particularly enjoyable.  Among the things that made the festival so enjoyable was staying at the Embassy Suites by Hilton Huntsville Hotel & Spa because Katie and I were able to walk to the Von Braun Center and not have to deal with parking or driving after the event or the weather.  I especially enjoyed being able to enter the VBC South Hall before the event started to get a feel for the setup.  The breweries at the event were great because all nine operating breweries in the Huntsville area participated along with some of the bigger brands in the state.  Additionally, a lot of regional and national breweries were pouring beers at the festival, too.

The beers were great, too.  Not just because I got to sample a lot of beers, but because it was a great blend of breweries pouring their year-round staples and some unique one-off beers.  Naturally there was an emphasis on darker, heavier beers that you tend to be more popular during winter, but there were also lighter brews to suit the tastes of just about everybody in attendance.

I haven’t really started planning my travels for 2019, but I expect to put the Third Annual Von Brewski Beer Festival on my schedule and make another visit to the Rocket City.  Prost y’all!

Disclosure: My admission to the 2018 Von Brewski Beer Festival and two-night hotel stay at the Embassy Suites by Hilton Huntsville Hotel & Spa were provided by the Huntsville/Madison County Convention & Visitors Bureau.  Be assured that all words and opinions contained here, are 100% my own.

A pint at Yellowhammer Brewing in Huntsville, Ala.

When work on Campus 805 started, Yellowhammer Brewing was the first tenant to break ground and ultimately the first to open its doors.  The opening is notable for many reasons.

The opening meant that the redevelopment of the 13-acre Stone Middle School property into Campus 805 was becoming a reality.  It also meant that Yellowhammer, which was started by a quartet of guys in 2010, had become one of the premier breweries in Huntsville, and was part of a major attraction for craft beer lovers throughout the state of Alabama and even surrounding states.

Yellowhammer occupies a new building on the Campus 805 landscape with plenty of parking surrounding it.  So visitors may get slightly different views of the property when walking to the entrance.  However, it is impossible to miss the iconic imagery of Alabama’s state bird, the yellowhammer (actually called the northern flicker; here’s a more detailed explanation).

Main entrance to the brewery.

Walking down the hallway to the taproom is a piece of art that connects the past of Stone Middle School to the present of Yellowhammer Brewing.

Artwork dedicated to Campus 805 as you enter the taproom.

As to be expected, the taproom is quite expansive.  It’s so large that I struggled to capture it in one shot.  It was easier to capture a shot of the bar before turning my focus on the width of the space.

Behind the bar is a window into the brewing area.  So while the taproom separates the two areas of the brewery, visitors can at least see the fermentation tanks and other equipment.

A view of the taps and view into the brewery itself.

Yes, that is a a crowler machine on the counter behind the bar itself.  My wife Katie and I did not purchase any beer to take home with us, but I am always excited when i see a crowler machine at a brewery.  They are much more useful than using the traditional glass growler to take beer home.  I prefer crowlers because I don’t have to store anything after finishing the beer, I can recycle the aluminum can from the typical 32-oz. crowler and not worry about the growing collection of growlers cluttering the beer room.

We visited Yellowhammer in the early afternoon just after lunch, so we did not take advantage of the food available at Earth and Stone Wood Fired Pizza.  In addition to pizza they also serve calzones, salads, some small-plate items like meatballs, and “adult” ice cream like bourbon butter pecan.

An overview of Earth and Stone Fired Pizza, which is connected to the brewery.

So without the need to eat, although I’ve seen the lines for pizza so I know it’s good food, Katie and I ordered a flight of beers.

A flight of beers.

Yellowhammer Brewing is available throughout Alabama, so I’ve had many of the brewery’s beers on multiple occasions.  So choosing the flight was about sampling beers only available at the taproom, brews we had not seen in our hometown of Tuscaloosa, or just beers we hadn’t tried before.  Despite Yellowhammer’s extensive beer list, it was relatively easy for Katie and I to build a flight together.

We chose…
Tobacco Road, which is an imperial amber ale.
Imperial Rebellion, which is a variant of their year-round Rebellion.
Nussknacker, which is a holiday bock.
Berliner Weisse, which is a tart German-style ale.
7th Anniversary, which is a Belgian tripel.
Bride of Frankenhammer, which is a Belgian strong ale aged in red wine barrels on cherries.

We also had two additional tasters because there were more beers than we wanted to sample that didn’t fit onto the flight of six.  So we ordered Belgian Pear Pale Ale, which is a Belgian pale with pears, and New England, which is a New England-style India Pale Ale.

Out of the eight beers I sampled, the beers I rated the best on Untappd were Nussknacker and 7th Anniversary.  Nussknacker is a good malty winter beer with just the right amount of spices that allow it to pleasantly warm you and make you think about your favorite holiday memories.  7th Anniversary is a potent Belgian tripel that celebrates the brewery’s seven years of operation.  It is boozy, but not overpowering and very smooth for a beer checking in at 13.8% ABV.

After finishing our beers, I explored the taproom a bit more and found some maps that were very interesting.  I liked them partially because I’m a geographer, and I’ve always loved maps, but also because of what information the maps contained.

As visitors head toward the back door to leave the brewery, you will see two large wooden-mounted maps with stickers on them.  One shows Alabama and its 67 counties with stickers brought by visitors showing the approximate location of each brewery in the state, and in some cases the stickers are actually from craft beer bars.  Next to the Alabama map is a map of the United States with stickers from breweries throughout the country.  These maps are two of the cooler customer-interactive pieces I’ve ever seen at a brewery.

The third map is in the taproom mounted on a wall.  The map shows the 10th Prohibition District and varying levels of public sentiment for “illicit distilling and unlawful selling, transporting, and possession” or alcohol.  The map dates to 1930, which made it exciting to see it preserved in a brewery.

The weirdest feature is something not everybody gets to see unless you wander into the men’s bathroom…

A view of the keg urinals in the bathroom.

In typical craft brewery style, Yellowhammer utilized a pair of old kegs for urinals in the men’s restroom.

When I visited the brewery was undergoing major expansion in an effort to double its overall space, partially to brew more beer and partially to add more entertainment space.  I didn’t tour the brewing side, but did get to see some of the progress made with the outdoor space.

Overview of the patio.

The patio was empty when I visited because it was early on a Friday afternoon, but the stage in the back allows a variety of entertainers to pack in the crowds.

Although I had visited Yellowhammer Brewing, it was a great time and always enjoyable seeing the new small-batch beers on draft.  I can’t wait to see what the new entertainment space looks like, especially in the spring when I can sit on the patio sipping a Belgian White while listening to some live music.

Previewing the 2018 Von Brewski Festival

Photo courtesy of Huntsville/Madison County Convention & Visitors Bureau. Graphic by Steven Ericson.

When people think of beer festivals, they often think of big events like Oktoberfest in Munich, Germany, or the Great American Beer Festival in Denver, Colo., or maybe even The Festival, which is hosted by Shelton Brothers, Inc.  However, everywhere across the globe there are smaller scale, much more affordable beer festivals happening nearly every month.

This coming weekend, Huntsville hosts the Second Annual Von Brewski Beer Festival at the Von Braun Center – South Hall.  Conveniently located in downtown Huntsville, the Von Braun Center is easily accessible to those living in and around Huntsville, but also great for visitors because there are a handful of great hotels (like my host hotel for the weekend, the fabulous Embassy Suites by Hilton Huntsville Hotel & Spa) within walking distance of the VBC.

The event helps kickoff Huntsville Beer Week that is organized by the Huntsville chapter of Free the Hops, which is a grassroots organization that advocates for the modernization of beer laws in Alabama.  The organization has been critical to a lot of Alabama beer law changes within the past five-plus years, most notably the law that now allows breweries to sell to-go beer to consumers.

For those unfamiliar with the craft beer scene in Alabama, the number one city to visit is Huntsville.  The Rocket City currently boasts nine operating breweries in the city and metropolitan area with a tenth on the verge of opening in the next few months.  By comparison, Birmingham has only seven breweries currently operating in its metro area.  Some beers from the Huntsville breweries do not get distributed south of Birmingham or even outside of North Alabama, so beer festivals are the best way to sample these brews.

THE DETAILS
Who: You and your craft beer-loving friends
What: The Von Brewski Beer Festival
Where: Von Braun Center’s South Hall (700 Monroe St., Huntsville, AL 35801)
When: Saturday, Jan. 20, 2018; 2 to 6 p.m.
Why: To sample new beers and help kick off Huntsville Beer Week
How: Tickets are $35 in advance, and $40 at the door.  Non-sampling tickets are $15.  Tickets can be bought in person at the VBC box office or online from Ticketmaster.

There is also food for purchase at the event, a fully stocked bar, and musical entertainment from 45 Surprise.  According to the folks at the VBC, there will be the standard food items available for purchase like soft pretzels (always good for absorbing the alcohol), hot dogs, cheeseburgers, chicken sandwiches, bratwursts, and more for you to purchase.

THE SETUP
If you’ve never attended a beer festival it may seem like a daunting task figuring out where to go, what to drink, and how to maximize your time.  Although I have yet to attend Von Brewski, most beer festivals have booths dedicated to specific breweries where you will only be able to sample beers from that company.  Sometimes, booths are dedicated to certain distributors, so you may find a three or four beers from different breweries at one spot.

With four hours and just over 50 breweries in attendance, it can be a difficult to figure out how to maximize your time.  My strategy with indoors festivals is to start in one direction and keep moving that way, so whether you start left or right just keep going in a circle visiting the different booths.  If there is a long line at one booth, then hit the next one and come immediately back to the first booth.  In many cases you’ll have the time to finish your sample and almost immediately get a pour at the first booth.

Beer festivals are THE best opportunity to sample beers you may not normally buy, so DO it!  If you’re not a typically a fan of IPAs or ambers or wits or whatever style, but hear about one and want to sample it go ahead and do it.  You may like it, so just do it.  If you don’t like it, don’t worry about finishing the sample.  Just politely dump it out, and if someone asks whether you like it politely inform them that it wasn’t for you.  I’ve seen it many times where people hesitate trying a certain style because they know they don’t like the flavors typically found in that style, but you’re not paying for each sample.  You paid one price for admission, so try as many beers as you want.

THE BREWERIES
With any beer festival, it is difficult to decide what beers to try.  It can be attractive to sample everything, but that’s problematic because of the time it takes to walk around, the time it takes waiting in line, and the time it takes to drink the samples.  I recommend looking through the list of participating breweries to see what you usually find in the stores or your local craft beer bar.  If you live in Huntsville, and can regularly get Straight to Ale you may want to skip them unless they have something that is a one-off that you don’t usually see.  However, if you’re visiting from out-of-state and do not get Straight to Ale in your hometown then you definitely want to stop at their booth.

In an effort to help you decide what breweries to sample, I’ve broken the list of participating breweries into four categories: Huntsville-area breweries, Alabama breweries, regional Southern breweries, and national/international breweries (last updated on Jan. 19, 2018 at 12 p.m. CT).  So far, 62 breweries have been announced.

Rocket City Breweries
Below the Radar Brewhouse (220 Holmes Ave. NE, Huntsville 35801)
Blue Pants Brewery (500 Lanier Rd., Madison 35758)
Green Bus Brewing (206 Eustis Ave. SE, Huntsville 35801)
Mad Malts Brewing Co. (109 Maple Ave. NW, Huntsville 35801)
Old Black Bear Brewing Co. (208 Main St., Madison 35758)
Rocket Republic Brewing (289 Production Ave., Madison 35758)
Salty Nut Brewery (2406 Clinton Ave. W, Huntsville 35801)
Straight to Ale Brewing (2610 Clinton Ave. W, Huntsville 35801)
Yellowhammer Brewing (2600 Clinton Ave. W, Huntsville 35801)

Alabama Breweries
Avondale Brewing Co. (Birmingham)
Back Forty Beer Co. (Gadsden)
Cahaba Brewing Co. (Birmingham)
Fairhope Brewing Co. (Fairhope)
Goat Island Brewing (Cullman)
Good People Brewing Co. (Birmingham)
Main Channel Brewing Co. (Guntersville)
Red Clay Brewing Co. (Opelika)
Singin’ River Brewing Co. (Florence)
TrimTab Brewing Co. (Birmingham)

Southern Regional Breweries
Catawba Brewing Co. (Asheville, N.C.)
Cigar City Brewing (Tampa, Fla.)
Garr’s Beer Co. (Gypsy brewery based in Franklin, Tenn.)
Goodwood Brewing (Louisville, Ky.)
Lexington Brewing Co. (Lexington, Ky.)
Lonerider Brewing Co. (Raleigh, N.C.)
Lucky Town Brewing Co. (Jackson, Miss.)
Mill Creek Brewing Co. (Nolensville, Tenn.)
Ole Shed Brewing Co. (Tullahoma, Tenn.)
Second Self Beer Co. (Atlanta, Ga.)
Starr Hill Brewery (Crozet, Va.)
SweetWater Brewing Co. (Atlanta, Ga.)
Tennessee Brew Works (Nashville, Tenn.)
Terrapin Beer Co. (Athens, Ga.)
Wiseacre Brewing Co. (Memphis, Tenn.)

National/International Breweries
10 Barrel Brewing Co. (Bend, Ore.)
Ace Premium Craft Cider (Sebastopol, Calif.)
Ballast Point Brewing Co. (San Diego, Calif.)
Bell’s Brewery (Comstock, Mich.)
Blake’s Hard Cider Co. (Armada, Mich.)
Blue Point Brewery (Patchogue, N.Y.)
Boulevard Brewing Co. (Kansas City, Mo.)
Boston Beer Co. (Boston, Mass.)
Cedar Creek Brewery (Seven Points, Texas)
Chilero Beer (Guatemala City, Guatemala)
Ciderboys Hard Ciders (Stevens Point, Wis.)
Crazy Mountain Brewing Co. (Avon, Colo.)
Crown Valley Brewing (Ste. Genevieve, Mo.)
Dogfish Head Brewery (Milton, Del.)
Einstök Beer (Akureyri, Iceland)
Elysian Brewing CO. (Seattle, Wash.)
Founders Brewing Co. (Grand Rapids, Mich.)
Golden Road Brewing (Los Angeles, Calif.)
Goose Island Beer Co. (Chicago, Ill.)
Knee Deep Brewing Co. (Auburn, Calif.)
Krebs Brewing Co. (Krebs, Okla.)
Moody Tongue Brewing Co. (Chicago, Ill.)
New Belgium Brewing Co. (Ft. Collins, Colo.)
New Holland Brewing Co. (Holland, Mich.)
Oskar Blues Brewery (Longmont, Colo.)
Redstone Meadery (Boulder, Colo.)
Sonoma Cider (Healdsburg, Calif).
Southern Tier Brewing Co. (Lakewood, N.Y.)
Wyndridge Farm (Dallastown, Pa.)

THE RECOMMENDATIONS
I don’t pretend to be an authority on what beers every person should drink because we all have different tastes.  The beers I drink also change through the seasons, as I shift to darker, heavier brews during the winter and lighter, fruitier options during the spring and summer.  However, I will always drink a beer that someone tells me is delicious regardless of the season.  The complete beer list is available, but because people have different tastes I’m not going to recommend specific beers and instead focus on the breweries.

Rocket City Recommendations
I really like, no love, the breweries in Huntsville.  So it’s difficult for me to pick one or two without feeling like I am slighting the others.  However, the one “must-try” brewery is Green Bus Brewing because it is a nanobrewery that does not distribute its beer.  So the only way to sample what they brew is to buy it at the brewery.  Unless you’re going to the brewery this weekend, you must try some of their beer at the festival.  My other pick is Blue Pants Brewery because they make some delicious variants based off their Pinstripe Stout.  I guess I am recommending a specific beer here, but it is really delicious and if you’re going to a winter beer festival it is only appropriate to sample a few stouts.

Alabama Recommendations
The list of Alabama breweries outside of Huntsville participating in this year’s Von Brewski Beer Festival makes it extremely difficult to recommend one over another because with one exception they are all statewide breweries.  Additionally, they all make some very solid beers.  So based on the list, if you live outside of North Alabama I would check out Singin’ River Brewing Co. because I do not often see them south of Tuscaloosa.  Additionally, I would check out Main Channel Brewing Co. because I have yet to find them anywhere except at beer festivals in the state, which have all been in northern Alabama.  Otherwise, I’d be discriminant and see what the breweries are carrying before committing to standing in line for a sample.  If you’ve had their beers before, then skip the line and try something different elsewhere.

Southern Regional Recommendations
Like the Alabama breweries, many of the larger regional breweries are widely available throughout the state and elsewhere.  That makes sense because otherwise they wouldn’t be at a beer festival in Huntsville.  That doesn’t mean you can’t discriminate and focus on sampling new beers.  I would check out Ole Shed Brewing Co. because I have not seen their beers in Birmingham or further south.  So if you haven’t seen their beers yet, you should check them out.  Wiseacre Brewing Co. is another Tennessee brewery that recently started distributing beer in Alabama, but it is generally not available outside of northern Alabama.  My last Southern brewery recommendation is Lucky Town Brewing Co. from Jackson, Miss.  The beers they are bringing aren’t on the list, but I visited their brewery last summer and really enjoy the variety they brew.  I am a big fan of Cigar City Brewing and Terrapin Beer Co., but feel that those breweries have a large distribution footprint in the state, so unless they are pouring a beer you’ve never drank before I’d keep moving past their booths.

National/International Recommendations
There are some big name nationwide craft breweries available at the festival, so instead of stating the obvious and recommending Boulevard Brewing Co., Dogfish Head BreweryNew Holland Brewing Co., or Southern Tier Brewing Co. because those are the names most craft beer drinkers will recognize.  All three breweries have well-earned reputations, so if you like their beers visit their booths for a sample.  However, I am more intrigued and suggest you check out Crazy Mountain Brewing Co. and Knee Deep Brewing Co. because both have a fairly limited distribution in Alabama.  Both brew beers that span the spectrum of tastes, and not knowing what beers specifically will be available, I hesitate to recommend anything specific.  However, if you’re interested in trying new beers, which should be why you’re going to a craft beer festival in the first place, then I’d focus on finding this pair of breweries before falling back on the trio of old-reliable breweries.

PROST Y’ALL!
Now all that is left is to arrive early enough to the VBC so that you’re not waiting in line for very long.  I typically try to arrive about 15 minutes before the doors open because I’m willing to wait in a line, but don’t want to be waiting outdoors for an extended period of time.  The doors open at 1:30 p.m., but beers don’t start pouring until two o’clock, so nobody should be stuck waiting outdoors for very long.  There will be plenty of beers available, so remember to pace yourself so that you can actually enjoy what you’re sampling.  Be sure to wash out your sampling glass before getting a new pour because you don’t want the super hoppy IPA you just quaffed down to taint the robust coffee stout you’re about to sample.

Last, but not least be sure to check in your beers using my favorite beer app, Untappd.  It’s a free app that allows you to track the beers you drink, give them ratings, earn badges, and interact with your friends and other craft beer drinkers.  If you’re new to the app, be sure to download it before going to the festival and feel free to send me a friend request as I’ll be tracking the beers I’m sampling at the Von Brewski Beer Festival.

Disclosure: My admission to the 2018 Von Brewski Beer Festival and two-night hotel stay at the Embassy Suites by Hilton Huntsville Hotel & Spa were provided by the Huntsville/Madison County Convention & Visitors Bureau.  Be assured that all words and opinions contained here, are 100% my own.

A pint at Mad Malts Brewing in Huntsville, Ala.

A trio with a fondness for beer and an irreverent nature for naming traditions, led Chris Bramon, Jeff Peck, and Tracy Mullins to start The Brew Stooges in 2013.  The success the trio enjoyed was short-lived after receiving a cease-and-desist order from the C3 Entertainment, which owns the rights to the Three Stooges.  However, the group kept the wacky theme alive with the re-named company: Mad Malts Brewing.

The taproom is located in the building that used to house Mullins’s former business, Complete Plumbing.  Due to its former life the building is located in an industrial area near the intersection of Oakwood Avenue and Meridian Street.  There are some houses on surrounding streets, which can make parking difficult for visitors.  The issue is so important that the brewery posts a parking notice on its website reminding people not to park in front of houses or R&R Racing.  Once visitors park, they clearly see signage for the brewery.

Main entrance to the brewery.

The taproom is truly an all-in-one space with the equipment immediately to the right once people enter the facility.  On the Friday night that I visited the brewery with my wife Katie, a band was playing immediately in front of the fermentation tanks (more on the music later).  Just past the fermentation tanks is the cooler and draft wall.

We immediately ordered a flight of beers, which spanned the spectrum from standards like a Russian imperial stout to the experimental blood orange IPA.

A labeled flight of beers.

Splitting a flight with my wife allowed me the opportunity to sample a greater variety of beers, especially ones that I would not necessarily try on my own.  The flight included a yam beer, two different flavored porters, a flavored India pale ale, a dark sour, and a Russian imperial stout.  Katie and I split a pint of the Double Rye, too.  Out of the seven beers I sampled that night, my favorite was the Russian imperial stout.  It was malty with molasses and coffee flavors, and very smooth.  Yam I Am was also very good, and I especially enjoyed that Becky added a unique touch with the brown sugar rim.  The beer itself was very solid with a wonderful fall/Thanksgiving mix of spices, but the addition of the brown-sugar made the beer-drinking experience slightly more enjoyable.

The brewery has three areas for visitors: the downstairs immediately in front of the brewing equipment, an upstairs living room that is complete with couches, and an outdoor beer garden with picnic tables and a porch swing.

Sitting downstairs, I got a great view of the band playing in front of the brewing equipment.  The downstairs features about four six-foot-long tables designed to be used communally by visitors.

A view of a band performing in front of the fermentation tanks seen from the upstairs living room.

Upstairs has a different setup and vibe.  It is truly like a living room if your living room overlooked a working brewery.  It has couches, a few smaller tables for guests, and a collection of board games.  Overall it’s a much more intimate setting than the downstairs.

An overview of the upstairs living room.

The outdoor space was unoccupied when I visited partially because of the cool, fall temperatures, and assuredly in part because of the band playing that night.  The crowd gathered downstairs was intently listening and singing along to the songs as the band played a lot of songs from the late-1970s and 1980s.  Despite the lack of customer interest in being outdoors that night, it is a great setup.

The folks at Mad Malts may not call it a beer garden, but the outdoor space is reminiscent of one.  There is a trio of picnic tables, and a big, wooden porch swing.  There are also two grills that can be used during the summer and early fall.

Whether you sit downstairs, upstairs, or outdoors you are sure to enjoy the scene at the Mad Malts Brewing taproom.  The crowd is laid-back and fun.  The staff is friendly and helpful.  And the beers are unlike something you’ll mind most anywhere else.

A pint at Straight to Ale Brewing in Huntsville, Ala.

One of the earliest craft breweries to open in Huntsville was Straight to Ale Brewing.  The brewery originally opened on Leeman Ferry Road in a former industrial area across from Joe W. Davis Stadium, then the home of the Southern League’s Huntsville Stars.  Like many things in the Rocket City over the past few years, progress led to some notable changes.  The Stars left town (and became the Biloxi Shuckers), and the craft beer scene in the city took off.

Following a massive overhaul of the former Stone Middle School property just west of downtown, Straight to Ale relocated from its original facility south of downtown to the new Campus 805.  There is much more history to the brewery than I’m going to delve into in a blog post, so I’m going to focus on the present and the brewery’s expansive space at Campus 805.

There are two entrances to the brewery: one being an entrance from the school’s former driveway and another from the greenspace in the middle of Campus 805. My wife Katie and I entered from Butler Green.

Entering from Butler Green visitors pass by the outside bar, which wasn’t busy at the time we passed through because it was just before five o’clock and partially because it was cooler outside.

A view of the outdoor bar.

Despite a small crowd at the time we passed through, the outside bar is a great place to enjoy during the spring and summer months.  After walking through the brewing facility (more on that later), visitors arrive at the taproom.

An overview of the taproom.

There are a lot of things that are unique about Straight to Ale and its facility, which I will delve into one at a time.  One of the most notable differences between Straight to Ale and many other breweries is that the brewery has a full kitchen.  When the brewery opened at its previous location, a food truck opened in the brewery’s parking lot.  The food truck did so well and was so popular that when the brewery relocated that it was logical to partner with the food truck to operate the kitchen.

Trying to describe the menu is nearly impossible because it covers a bit of everything.  It includes traditional American fare, Korean, Tex-Mex, and more.  Katie and I ordered a combination platter of  chicken wings and St. Louis-style ribs.

A plate of wings with Jerk Buffalo sauce and crispy Asian ribs covered in Mogwai Teriyaki sauce.

The ribs traditionally come covered in Mogwai Teriyaki sauce, which is delicious.  You can get other sauces, but there’s no reason to choose anything besides the Mogwai Teriyaki.  There are a lot of choices for topping the chicken wings ranging from BBQ to the mouth-burning xXxtraHot Diablo, which is a nine-pepper blend.  Katie and I opted for Jerk Buffalo upon the recommendation of Matt Cooper, who later took us on a tour of the facility.  The Jerk Buffalo sauce was outstanding as it combined traditional buffalo sauce with Jamaican jerk spices to create a deliciously, unique blend of flavors.

After finishing our dinner, we got a personal tour of the brewery from Matt Cooper.  Cooper a.k.a Coop is a sales rep covering north Alabama, and worked for the brewery in a variety of positions before recently transitioning into sales.

Before we left the taproom though, I had to snap one last picture.

A view of beer for sale and the Monkeynaut cutout.

It’s common place to see breweries selling beer to take home, but I wanted to capture the Monkeynaut cutout.  You don’t have to be a kid to enjoy a cutout.  Leaving the taproom we found some artwork.

Some artwork near the Speakeasy.

Right after the artwork most visitors will see a set of old lockers, and probably think nothing of them.  After all, you’re in a former middle school so it’s not surprising to see a set of lockers.  However, the lockers hide the brewery’s speakeasy.

Coop explains some of the history behind the Speakeasy.

As Coop explained, the Speakeasy used to be the former band room.  The lockers hide what used to be a private practice room before opening up to the huge space that used to be the band room.

The Speakeasy is truly unique.  It is designed to be like a Speakeasy during Prohibition, and is the only place at the brewery where you can order Shelta Cavern Spirits.  The available spirits are gin, rum, vodka, and whiskey.  The spirits are also brewed on site.  The vibe in the Speakeasy is purposefully quite different from the taproom.  There is a movie screen that continuously shows black-and-white films from Turner Classic Movies.

Down the hall from the Speakeasy is the game room.

An overview of pinball machines and pool tables as part of the game room.

The game room has pool tables and pinball machines, and at one point had a pinball league.  I’m not sure exactly how a pinball league operates, but it sounds like a cool idea.

The amazing thing about Straight to Ale is that so far everything I’ve written about focuses on drinking beer, eating food, sipping liquor, and playing games.  It’s almost as if they don’t brew beer on site.  Of course, that’s not the case.  So onto making beer…

After taking Katie and I to the brewery’s gigantic cold storage room, Coop took us around to the old gymnasium.  That is where Straight to Ale brews beer, and if you enter the brewery from Butler Green it is what you see before reaching the taproom.

The basketball goals are leftover from the old gymnasium, and a regular part of activities for workers at the brewery.  At the time we passed through, guys were playing a game and also tossing around a Frisbee with the movable disc golf goals.  The brewery used to have some equipment at its Leeman Ferry Road facility, but recently relocated everything and closed that location because of Alabama alcohol laws that made it more difficult to brew at two places.

Previously I mentioned Shelta Caverns Spirits, which are served in the Speakeasy.  Those are also distilled at the Campus 805 location, but technically in a distinct space different from the brewery.

A view of the still used by Shelta Cavern Spirits.

In a fenced in space with a lock is the still that head distiller Bojangle uses to produce the gin, rum, vodka, and whiskey available in the Speakeasy.  As Coop explained, the name comes from Shelta Cave, which is just north of Huntsville.  During Prohibition it was used as a speakeasy and dance hall, so when Straight to Ale decided to produce spirits it was the logical local name.

Seeing the brewing equipment and still was the end of our tour, but people wanting to tour the brewery don’t have to know someone to see all the behind-the-scenes stuff.  Straight to Ale offers free tours on Saturdays at 2 p.m.  As awesome as it was to see all the behind-the-scenes stuff, I haven’t discussed the main reason people visit a brewery’s taproom: beer.

Straight to Ale brews a variety of beers, many with humorous local-inspired names.  Monkeynaut, one of the brewery’s four year-round beers, is an India pale ale that derives its name from Miss Baker, which is the monkey that NASA launched into space.  After returning from space Miss Baker lived at the U.S. Space & Rocket Center in Huntsville, so it made sense to name a beer after one of the city’s key industries and local legends.  Stout at the Devil isn’t named after any local legend, but is an oatmeal stout brewed with caramel coffee that was named best new stout in Alabama by Beer Guys Radio (read the full list here).

Straight to Ale has been around long enough to gain a well-earned reputation for producing great beers, but visiting a brewery’s taproom isn’t about sampling beers you can buy at your local craft beer store.  Visiting the taproom is about sampling the unique one-offs and experimental small batches.  During this visit I got to sample Pumpkin Lily, which is a one-off from the brewery’s year-round Lily Flagg milk stout.  It was smooth and malty with some great pumpkin and spice notes.  I also drank Black Kvass Ale, which is typically made with dark rye and popular in Eastern Europe.  It was quite different from other beers I’ve drank, but very enjoyable.

However, I was most excited to try the latest version of Juicy Bunny, which is Straight to Ale’s take on a New England IPA.  It didn’t look hazy and cloudy like the typical New England IPA, but it was a great combination of citrus flavors with minimal bitterness.  It was tapped in honor of Drew, one of the brewers, and his final day working at Straight to Ale.  Although the brewery had bottled and distributed the first batch of Juicy Bunny, the batch that was tapped that day has not been distributed throughout the state.

As with many larger breweries, Straight to Ale offers something for just about everybody’s palate.  So whether you like hoppy IPAs, chocolatey and coffee influenced stouts, or lighter wheat ales, you can find something to suit your beer drinking needs.  If you’re not a beer drinker, you may enjoy the spirits available in the Speakeasy.  If you don’t drink at all and you’re just hanging out with friends, you’ll still enjoy all the Straight to Ale offers when you feast on the delicious food options from Ale’s Kitchen.  Without a doubt, this is a full-service brewery.